THE claystone cliffs at the Quinam Beach on Trinidad’s south coast crumble and recede with every high tide, making the water tea-coloured and leaving it heavy with sediment, but discouraging not a single bather. It is near these cliffs that the Amerindians settled in a time long before ours, and more recently, where troubled people have come to perform prayers — both spiritual and supernatural — the rituals involving fruits, fires, flags, and offerings to the sea.
Lindsay Thompson, 74, comes to this place most days, walking the beachfront at the low tide, his eyes never leaving the sand and pebbles in search of treasure, both recent and ancient. He had first come to the beach 17 years ago, to mourn the death of a son in an oilfield accident (crushed by a pumping jack) and to quell the murderous rage he felt against the doctors he believes did nothing to save his child’s life.
“I went down to the beach to find myself, and to find God. I walked the shoreline, and I started seeing gold instead. The next day I found more. I have been coming back ever since, for it has taken my mind away from that feeling,” he said. Thompson has since discovered coins by the bucketfull (including an 1889 coin featuring Queen Victoria) and more gold than he would ever consider buying — rings, earrings, and bracelets — lost by bathers or tossed into the sea by believers, the jewellery tumbling back to shore through the action of the waves and currents, including the gold dentures of some unfortunate visitor.
He has found an equally incredible trove, of perfectly preserved Amerindian axe heads and grinding stones, some shaped thousands of years ago. The gold, he has sold and given away. The Amerindian artefacts he kept. He knows they are something special.
Thompson has another secret you may want to know about — a graveyard in the forest. He is one of a small number of Siparia residents still alive who worked on the Coora Estate, a 300-acre plantation not far from the Quinam beach.
Thompson was only 13 when he began work as a labourer, and remembered seeing the graves which, even then, were old and had no visitors. His uncle Lenny was the overseer on the estate during that time (the 50s), the land then owned by Trinidad Leaseholders Limited (TLL, later to be renamed Petrotrin). He worked there until 1970 before getting a job at WASA. Working the citrus and cocoa fields was the first option for village children leaving school, and for small-island migrants who lived in the barracks alongside the Venezuelans, he recalled.
Among the largest estates on the island, the Coora Estate was crucial to the development of Siparia, and important enough for the Trinidad Government Railway to make a stop there for cargo and passengers. But agriculture would largely be replaced by the higher paying oilfield jobs, and the TGR line to Siparia closed in August 1965. Trinidad’s independence three years before would adversely affect the island’s plantation economy, to the point where the crops were abandoned and the forest reclaimed the estates.
The only evidence of the Coora Estate to be seen today is the overseer’s house, now occupied by the children of Sakawa Harrinarine, the last man to manage the land. But if you have a sharp cutlass and some courage, you can hack your way through a half kilometre of rope-like donkey grass, to a hilltop samaan tree shading the lost graveyard.
Smothered by bush, are the plots, marked by concrete enclosures surrounded by high woods and serenaded by cicadas. The graves are nameless. There is no one left in Siparia who can remember who lie there. But there is someone who has the records that tell much more about the Coora Estate, during its glory days of the 1920s and 30s, when there were stables, drying houses, barracks, a hospital near that graveyard, the family in the estate house and, most important of all, Alice May Brodie-Thomson, the lady of the house.
Jennifer De Verteuil is the granddaughter of “May”, whose epic life led her to nursing school in New York and the front line during World War 1 in France, before a love affair brought her back home to marry Bertie Thomson and the Coora Estate in Siparia.
Jennifer De Verteuil reveals the life of May, the “Nightingale of Coora.”
The way it was
In 1893, a white Vincentian name George Huggins established a small mercantile outfit in POS on Broadway.
George took on EP Hutchinson as a partner and by 1915 incorporated the firm of Geo. F. Huggins and Co. as a limited liability company. They were importers and exporters, bringing in hardware and dry goods and exporting cocoa, coffee, tonka beans and other agricultural produce. The price of cocoa was very high in this period and the firm did good business in chocolate exports. Initially, the company took in beans from small farmers in exchange for store credit but soon began to acquire properties of its own. By 1920, Geo. F. Huggins owned estates in every corner of the country from Mayaro to Toco.
The Coora Estate was one such estate, and it is that is where Alice May Bride and her husband Bertie Thomson made their life and raised three children. Coora Road follows the old Indian footpath which led from a major Amerindian landing place on Quinam beach to the sandy plateau of Siparia where there was a significant settlement.
In 1758 Capuchin monks from Spain founded a mission here which is the source of the legendary patron saint of the town, La Divina Pastora. Although now largely returned to the forest, Coora Road in the early 1900s was densely cultivated with cocoa and citrus and Huggins and Co. had several hundred acres here.
Dozens of Venezuelan peons worked the plantation and some of their descendants still reside in the district. Some remained here permanently since a spot on a hill in the bush is supposed to be where a small estate cemetery once existed.
A large rambling house in classic estate architecture in which May and her family lived, once occupied a shallow spot but is now gone. The present structure was a manager’s house, complete down to the concrete cistern for storing rainwater. The estate was viable since a short distance away was the Siparia terminus of the Trinidad Government Railway which made the freighting of produce a simple matter, in addition to the halt at Coora road where the donkeys would carry their loads.
The estate folded completely in the 80s, and the land is now Petrotrin-owned and overseen by the Palo Seco Agricultural Enterprises Limited. (from the reseach of historian/writer Angelo Bissessarsingh)